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Just Buffalo Rewrites Its Future

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – Just Buffalo Literary Center is an unparalleled champion for the written and spoken word. For nearly three decades, the local not-for-profit group has fostered budding writers, of every age, and offered an inspiring line-up of literary celebrations.

But devastating funding cuts, coming at a chaotic time of transition, threaten an unhappy ending to this important community story.

There are hundreds of testimonials from people all around Buffalo who are passionate about literature - and about Just Buffalo.

"I grew up around books and reading. My Mom's a librarian, and my Dad's an English teacher, so literature and writing have always been a part of my life," said Laurie Torrell.

"But over the years, Just Buffalo readings, programs in the community have exposed me to writers I never would have had a chance to be exposed to otherwise - and I love the organization."

Laurie Torrell is more than just a fan. She'd have to be. Torrell took over as director of the nationally recognized organization at possibly the worst time in its history.

Like every other cultural group, Just Buffalo was reeling from drastic funding cutbacks following 9-11. But they were also without a leader to help get them through.

By the time Torrell came on the scene last fall, more than a year after former director Ed Taylor left - the damage had spiraled. More lost funding and lost grant opportunities to help make up the difference.

Torrell admits Just Buffalo is in crisis.

"I'll be honest, I'm spending a lot of time writing grants right now and foundation requests to address the needs that are very real and very immediate," said Torrell.

It was the lag in grant requests, during the leadership void, which is largely responsible for the current upheaval.

Torrell said those lost grant opportunities, along with other funding cuts, are now being felt to the tune of $140,000 off the bottomline. And that's a substantial portion for an organization that, at its peak, operated on roughly 500,000 a year.

Torrell said it was serious. Just Buffalo nearly folded last year - quietly, almost unnoticed. Torrell said that's part of the problem.

And that's a big challenge for us," said Torrell. "We've been in the community for twenty-seven years and yet many people aren't aware of all the things we do, or even sometimes attend events and don't realize Just Buffalo is the organization that made the event happen."

A creative solution to the enigma dilemma is also helping Just Buffalo raise some much needed revenue.

In the past, the organization relied on rented space for all its events.

But Just Buffalo recently renovated it's conference room into a sixty seat performance space.

The idea saves money - but Torrell said it also helps create a sense of identity.

"We don't have to worry about securing, you know, spaces for our local readings at other locations. But, really, beyond that, it is wanting to have that sense of community," said Torrell.

"We're a literary center, we're a community meeting place, a place for people who write, care about writing, care about literature, to come together, meet other people who care about it. And we want that to be right at our location. We want people to know where we are and what we have available at Just Buffalo."

And a lot had been available. Monthly newsletters, a radio program, Writing and publishing workshops, writers in residence programs for schools, collaborations with the area's top culturals, and a dizzying line-up of readings and performances by local and international literary stars.

Some of that had to be shaved away.

Just Buffalo now hopes to preserve its core - the literature and educational programs.

Mike Kelleher is artistic director for Just Buffalo. He said its a leaner, more focused vision.

"Now that that funding is gone, it's really forcing us to get back to our roots. And our roots is having good relationships with writers," said Kelleher.

"There are many writers who we supported early on in their careers who really appreciate what we've done for them in the past. And we're really trying to build on that with people who are early in their careers now, to sort of continue that practice of supporting younger writers and up and coming writers."

And he said that means paying attention to what writers want and need most.

Kelleher said they are still in the process of making those painful and hard choices.

Right now, it's meant eliminating part of the already extremely limited staff, cutbacks in mailings, and the indefinite suspension of the radio program "Spoken Arts," which ran until recently on WBFO.

Still, Kelleher believes Just Buffalo will come out stronger than ever before.

"I actually think the programming we're doing right now is more dynamic and stronger than it's been for quite some time," said Kelleher.

"If you look at the roster we have a much busier schedule than we've probably had for a couple of years. So, I don't think that aspect of things is really suffering from the cuts. I think it's actually forcing us to be a lot more creative."

Just Buffalo Director Laurie Torrell adds that creativity will be crucial to the next chapter of their history.

"We understand that while financial resources are not unlimited, our creativity is really a source we can tap to help us think of new sources of revenue, think of new ways to do things, think of new collaborations that can extend what we do. So we're very optimistic about what's going to be possible for us to do as we move ahead," said Torrell.

"But the reality is that it is a very challenging time right now for all the arts organizations. And we really need people from the community to support our events and our organization as we navigate these challenging times."

Torrell said there was one very promising sign of that support during a recent crisis.

National essayist Andre Codrescu canceled his appearance at the last minute for a major fundraiser two weeks ago. But renowned poet Robert Creeley stepped right in, people kept their tickets, and $3,000 dollars was raised for Just Buffalo.